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  • Alex Gerlach

A Pedacito Of My High School: Performing Arts Academy

Updated: Jun 19, 2022

The rickety, yellow school bus pulls off the main road and up to the main gate of the Naval Air Engineering Base in Lakehurst, New Jersey. We follow the line of cars inside, waiting for our turn as the gate attendant checks all our badges before waving us through. After a few turns, we pull up to Hangar No.1 – the warehouse that housed the OCVTS Performing Arts Academy.

Hangar No.1 on Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Base
Hangar No.1 on Lakehurst Naval Air Engineering Base

OCVTS Performing Arts Academy is a public high school program for students who are interested in pursuing careers in performing arts. For many years, classes were held in the historic Hangar No. 1 which housed the Hindenburg blimp before it crashed in 1937. And the building really was that old. Almost every time it rained, buckets would line the hallways to catch rainfall pouring from the ceiling.

In my freshman year, everyone had to take a computer class to learn the basics of Microsoft Office tools, research, photo editing, etc. For the photography lesson, the teacher took us all outside to the Hindenburg Disaster memorial located at the original crash site to take pictures. Everyone ended the project with a bunch of strange pictures of an unkempt, abandoned parking lot with a single, tiny plaque of remembrance.

When I talk to friends from my graduating class, we all say the same thing, "PAA was a fever dream." And it really was! It was the kind of place where everyone knew the meanings of phrases like "the chow house," "blue-ribbon school," and "the third floor." We called our principal by her first name (shout-out to Karen). The gym and cafeteria were housed in the same room. Oh, and don't forget the @PaaProbs Twitter account.

Looking back, I'm not quite sure what I was expecting when I got accepted into PAA. You see, not just anyone could get into PAA. It was selective. Due to the size of the building, they could only accept anywhere from 20-30 students per major for each grade. After completing some standardized tests and a personal essay, students auditioned for one of three majors: Acting, Singing, or Dancing. I was accepted into PAA as a vocal major.

PAA was pretty rigorous and some majors were more intense than others (RIP the dance majors), but the general schedule was pretty much the same. Every major spent 90 minutes a day studying a number of subjects relating to their discipline. For vocalists, it was things like music history, vocal anatomy, and theory. Outside of this 90-minute period, we had other classes like English, Math, and gym class.

At PAA, there was always something going on, whether it was a school-held event or something the students cooked up. The school had organized events like Spirit Week and the famed, extremely competitive field day. They even paid for class trips to New York City to see shows on broadway. I saw productions like Newsies, She Loves Me, and even a few operas at the MET.

"We're not that bad!" – PAA Class of 2016, Field Day Chant

But the student body often put on their own productions, sometimes quite literally. In fact, my class wrote and performed an entire musical called "Baiata the Musical" solely inspired by our gym teacher. In other cases, we were always immortalizing something small into our unique culture. Like "Pigtails Against P," a small strike a few of us vocalists put on because we were annoyed with our teacher. We showed up to school and wore pigtails all day.

My class, specifically, is still talked about to this day. And I get why, we were kind of wild. The bunch of us were bold, true lovers of all things drama, and always looking for a good time. My senior year, we pranked the entire school by turning the entire second floor into a haunted house and basically spent the whole day scaring people.

Despite how absolutely crazy PAA was, I am always grateful for the opportunity I had to go there. Even though I was creatively burned out by junior year and had abandoned a career in music, by the time I graduated I felt prepared and ready for college.

That's something I don't think my town's public high school could have offered. At PAA, teachers and students alike had a strong sense of community. So, there was always lots of support and opportunity for a more personalized learning environment.

I graduated from Performing Arts Academy back in 2016. After finishing my bachelor's degree, I can't help but realize how fast time has gone by. I scroll through social media now and see how vastly the paths of my former peers have changed direction, how their lives have taken shape. And then I realize how much my own life has changed and how old I'm getting...

But crows feet aside, PAA was like no other high school. It was complete madness at all times, sometimes frustrating but always keeping you on your toes. And no matter how much time passes, the PAA Class of 2016 is still #paastrong.


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